On Remembering the Present and Imagining the Past (11.30.10)
If this is true -- which I believe it is -- it leads to the questions, what is human memory and what is it good for? Brain neurologists can tell you that, contrary to common sense, memory is not some sort of exact imprint of the past on the brain. Rather, it is always very much a "work in progress," with things being added, deleted, and synthesized into a more or less comprehensive picture. Looked at this way, there really is no such thing as an objective past, only our ongoing construction of it in the present. It is very much "the presence of the past," which is to say, an extension of the present into the past, rather than vice versa -- which is why history must be rewritten (or at least reevaluated) by each generation, since the past keeps changing in light of the future.
Or, at the very least, these two modes must be considered dialectically: the past reaches into the present, just as the present reaches into the past. What we call "history," or the recollected past, is more like a dynamic whirlpool created by these two streams. This is one of the main reasons two historians can regard the identical reality -- even utilizing the same materials -- so very differently. One historian looks at the American revolution as a rare and glorious irruption of Light into the darkness of politics, while another sees it as a venal con-job by wealthy and self-interested racists.
Thus, the past is clearly conditioned by the psychic present of the person interpreting it. When I read leftist "revisionist" history, my first question is usually "why is this person such an asshole?" They would no doubt feel the same way about me, except that they would say something like "why is he such a bad scholar?" But the much more important question is who is actually the asshole here? In other words, they will convert a feeling they are having into a statement about my qualifications, whereas I just go with the feeling, so long as it abides in higher cOOnvision.
You will notice that intellectually inferior leftist elites do this constantly, that is, disguise simple contempt as intellectual superiority, whether they are talking about global warming, economics, religion, "right wing talk radio," President Bush, etc. And this is why they are so incredibly blind to their prejudices: because they are first felt and only then experienced as self-evident "thoughts" -- thoughts that the conservative is "stupid" for not seeing with equal clarity. And because these liberal "thoughts" are not self-evident to the conservative, the liberal imagines that it must emanate from malevolence, which is to say, evil (which the liberal doesn't even believe in). For example, liberals always characterize Rush Limbaugh as hateful, when I can't even remember ever hearing him angry. Rather, the predominant mood of the program is nearly always one of joy -- as in joyously kicking liberal's asses. Just because they hate having this done to them, they imagine that Rush is hateful.
This is why conservatives think liberals are generally either wrong or stupid, while liberals feel that conservatives are evil. And since they are evil, there is no reason to develop sensible arguments to deal with them. Invective and moral condemnation are sufficient, as we see everywhere on the left, from the mountains of academia, to the highlands of the New York Times, to the lowlands of Hollywood, and into the sewer of dailykos.
Psychoanalytic therapy works exactly along these lines -- at least the form of therapy in which I was trained. That is, whatever a patient says about the past, it is presumed that he is actually (in some sense) making a statement about the present -- about his own present psychic organization, about his relationships and conflicts, and especially about the here-and-now reality of the therapeutic situation. In fact, this is what Bion meant by O. That is, as he sat there with a patient, he considered the reality of the situation to be an evolving field -- an unknowable, noumenal reality that shifts and changes on a moment-to-moment basis. One must notice the subtle changes in the nature of this field, and not necessarily get distracted by the content, since the content is more like the penumbra around O. In order to intuit O -- or for O to evolve into (k) -- we must, as Bion wrote, "suspend memory, desire, and understanding."
When you are in the presence of anyone, there is an unstated, preverbal reality between or "around" the two of you. This reality -- which is an aspect of O -- is at least as "real" as the conscious speech that passes between the two parties. You could say that it is more like the background, context, field, or "container" for what transpires within it. And it isn't an "empty" space, but -- as in modern physics -- a space that conditions the content "within" it.
We all notice this field, even if only unconsciously. Call it the "vibes" of a situation if you like. As a therapist, one is trained to pay close attention to the vibes given off by a patient (the "counter-transference"), since they speak volumes about the psychic reality in which the patient lives and has his being. Furthermore, one must be especially careful not to confuse the patient's vibes with one's own, which is easy to do if one lacks insight and awareness.
We all experience this from time to time. For example, we might be in a bad mood, so we experience our spouse as a different person than we did yesterday -- as a persecutory presence. Or perhaps you have listened to a particular piece of music, thinking you didn't like it, when it was just the mood you were in. For me, it is a common experience that certain types of music are inaccessible if I am not in the right frame of mind. What can sound like the music of the spheres one day can sound like music of the squares the next.
While neurologists think of consciousness as "the remembered present," there is another vital aspect of it which might be called the "unremembered memory of the present." One of the reasons it is unremembered is that if we had to equally contend with the background of the present, we'd be too distracted to deal with its foreground. This is why we often have to pay a specialist to systematically examine the background container of our present -- things we are unconsciously recalling that we don't want to, and that simply get in the way and distort it.
You might say that by far the larger part of memory is not that which we recall, but that which recalls us. For example, every night we are "forgotten" by O as we dissolve into the unconscious dreamworks, only to be re-collected and reconstituted by it in the morning. In this regard, it is very much analogous to being beamed down by the transporter each morning:
"A transporter is a fictional teleportation machine used in the Star Trek universe. Transporters convert a person or object into an energy pattern (a process called dematerialization), then 'beam' it to a target, where it is reconverted into matter (rematerialization). The term transporter accident is a catch-all term for when a person or object does not rematerialize correctly."
Indeed, perhaps you may have noticed that O is not entirely consistent in this regard -- that you might have had a little transporter accident overnight. It is as if the transporter left a few molecules out when it reassembled you in the morning. Or to use a computer analogy, you're a little "buggy." One morning you wake up feeling this way, while the next morning you wake up feeling that way. Perhaps something is "missing," not some easily identifiable content, but again, more like the background context that would allow it all to make sense. Often the only "cure" is to go back to sleep and reboot.
Now, what does this all have to do with history? I don't know yet. I guess we're about to find out. As Flaubert once said, "writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful." Let's hope, like the left, we're not just doing the opposite.